The dramatic capsize of American Magic brought out the best in the America’s Cup sailing fraternity. But, Suzanne McFadden asks, what does it mean to the crippled New York Yacht Club campaign and to the Prada Cup?
It was a scene as unreal as it was calamitous. Right at the moment the unbeaten British boat, Britannia, was being lifted out of the water after arriving home to the cheers of her team, the Americans were fighting to stop their broken boat, Patriot, from sinking.
The fortunes of the INEOS Team UK campaign which, until three days earlier, appeared to be sunk, were suddenly soaring; the boat craned onto its base with four wins from four.
While the US boat, which had been top dog when the Prada Cup challenger series began on Friday, was suddenly in danger of plunging to the bottom of the Hauraki Gulf.
Such are the cruel fortunes of America’s Cup racing.
But in sport there are moments when competition is secondary, especially when an opponent is wounded as badly as American Magic was.
There standing on the hull – water pouring in through a hole, and gushing out from pumps and hoses – were Emirates Team New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling, veteran Kiwi sailors Richard Meacham and Tony Rae, and Luna Rossa grinder Shannon Falcone, among the many on-the-water rivals working with the American Magic crew.
Regardless of which flag they sailed for, all three rival teams were pitching in, trying to save the boat – for both the troubled New York Yacht Club campaign and for the sake of this regatta. And thankful for the help that poured in, the team are vowing to get back up again
And with a magical Auckland sunset as a backdrop, there was another touch of camaraderie: the Team NZ crew rushing out in a tender delivering pizza to the cold and weary American team, as they were going backwards – literally – being towed back to base.
Something – perhaps the impact as the boat spectacularly went airborne then smashed down on the water – had put a large hole in the port side of Patriot’s bow. The sailors, with their racing helmets still on hours after the incident, were continuing to bail out water with garden-variety plastic buckets, as pumps and fire hoses worked overtime.
And then the boat had to be towed backwards, at an agonisingly slow two knots of speed on the 17km journey back to its base in the Viaduct. They arrived safely before midnight; team supporters watching quietly from the balcony of their base.
It was a heartbreaking scene. No one wants to see a boat – or a team – in such distress. Especially in a regatta that only has four competitors.
And on a day when, until that unfortunate moment, we had witnessed the best these magnificent foiling monohulls have offered so far, and a return to classic America’s Cup match racing.
This was supposed to be American Magic helmsman Dean Barker’s race. This was his territory, the waters off Murrays Bay where the Kiwi had learned to sail – where he honed his craft in dinghies like his P-Class, Evolution, in which he became a double national champion.
And after a stuttering start to this regatta, Barker was showing his steering prowess, and the blistering speed of the Americans’ AC75, as they led the Italians around the racecourse in fresh to frightening winds off the East Coast Bays late on Sunday afternoon.
Finally, finally, the Americans were destined to clinch their first point from the first two rounds of the challenger round robins.
But then, after rounding the final top mark well ahead of Luna Rossa, one complex manoeuvre at speed, combined with a sudden strong gust of wind, caught the Americans. Tacking and trying to bear away at speed, the boat reared up out of the water, off its foils, and as Barker tried to right it, dramatically flipped onto its side. Questions were immediately asked: was it a risky decision from the boat’s afterguard?
Yet the most vital question was: were the crew safe? Five sailors, including Barker and skipper-tactician Terry Hutchinson, took a swim as the cockpit filled with water. The other six crew were suspended above the water in the other cockpit waiting for help to arrive.
All sailors were accounted for, and unhurt.
As the boat lay forlornly on its side, Luna Rossa sailed conservatively past. The Americans called race director Iain Murray to withdraw from the race, and the Italians picked up their second point of the regatta – definitely not the way they would have wanted to do it.
And then it was all hands to the pumps. Every team, including the Cup defenders, Team NZ, came to the rescue, sending chase boats to help keep the yacht afloat. An armada of at least 25 boats swarmed around Patriot; the Harbourmaster and Coastguard, marine police, the Fire Service and divers were also quickly at the scene.
There were flashbacks to 1995 – off the coast of San Diego when One Australia broke and bent like a banana in heaving seas, never to be seen again. Iain Murray was on board the boat that day, leaping into the Pacific Ocean before the yacht went down.
Then to 1999, when Young America – another New York Yacht Club entry – broke its back on the Hauraki Gulf, in 20 knot winds and 2m waves, and the crew leapt overboard. They managed to salvage their boat.
And again to 2003, when Barker was also at the wheel of Team NZ’s fated NZL82 in the opening race of the America’s Cup match against Alinghi, when water surged into the struggling boat and crew bailed it out with a plastic blue bucket. Afterwards Barker estimated it had taken on two to five tons of water. The boat lived to sail another four days, but lost the Cup to Sir Russell Coutts and his Swiss challenge.
This time, Barker’s crew employed red plastic buckets, blue hoses and yellow airbags.
Once it was stabilised, the badly damaged Patriot began the long and demoralising tow home.
All is not lost for American Magic. They have their first edition AC75, Defiance, in their shed, which could be resurrected. Providing it meets the measurer’s standards, the Americans could sail it in the third and fourth round robins, which resume on Friday afternoon.
And if they can fix Patriot – which may need work on the hull and its insides, where the complex electronics lie – it may be in time for the semifinal, in essence a repechage for the second and third placed boats. They have until Wednesday to declare which boat they will sail this weekend.
Remember Team NZ made a miraculously swift comeback after they nosedived and pitchpoled their 50ft catamaran in the challenger semifinals in Bermuda in 2017. They worked through the night to make their repairs and sailed the next day.
In a press release early Monday morning, Hutchinson says: “Time and time again, American Magic has always responded to the adverse situations that we’ve been faced with, be it Covid-19 or other things we’ve come across in the last three years. This one is probably a bit of a larger challenge, but as always, how you get up is more important than how you get knocked down. I’m confident in us. I’m confident in our people.”
In another strange turn of events, Sir Ben Ainslie’s British team – who struggled through the World Series event before Christmas – are now favourites to win the round robin stage and advance straight to the Prada Cup final.
(It was also announced on Sunday that the round robin winner will receive the trophy for the Christmas Cup – the one-day regatta abandoned because of light airs).
Surprisingly unbeaten in the first two days of the Prada Cup, INEOS Team UK were in commanding form yet again on Sunday. The wholesale changes they made to Britannia over the festive season have certainly paid big dividends.
In the first attempt at their race against the Italians, they took the lead rounding the fourth mark just before the race was abandoned, because of a huge wind shift. In their second shot at the race, they gave a masterclass in patience and playing the long game, and impressing with their speed downwind.
Leaving aside what happened to American Magic at the end of the day, the Prada Cup was living up to its billing of the biggest show in town.
Before the boats headed out to the race course on Sunday morning, a crowd of 600 gathered in the America’s Cup Race Village to grab autographs from the sailors. Despite the squalls which swept across the city in the afternoon, the crowds in front of the big screens were constantly rolling through – the Luna Rossa wives and children filling the front half of the crowd before the showers drove them back to their base.
But it’s the capsize that will have the Prada Cup the main talking point around the office watercoolers come Monday morning.